Friday, March 17, 2006


OK, admit it...

...who's watching Channel 4's The Games purely because Julia Goldsworthy's in it?

It'll be interesting to see whether she can she can raise the bar for MPs involved in reality tv shows this year...

I notice that they've been calling her Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury - that's bound to wind up the Tories. I do hope no-one gets her confused with this delightful lady.

It's nice also to see that Sheffield can host a national event of this calibre. I'd like to thank the Labour Party for giving us Don Valley Stadium - who said the World Student Games was a waste of money?

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Why PR is good for everyone (except Labour)

Last week, all-round good guy Dave Cameron launched The Tory Campaign To Win Back The Cities (where they have been thorougly trounced each of the last three elections), in an attempt to undo his party's apparent annihilation in Britain's metropolitan areas. It turns out that he needn't be wasting his time - the Conservative Party's baffling disappearance from the cities has a fairly simple explanation. They never left.

In 2005, more than 1.1 million people voted Conservative in English cities outside of London, but returned a paltry 5 MPs.

For those that haven't read the article linked above, it's well worth a look - ideally, read it and then try to convince a Conservative-supporting friend that proportional representation, not boundry changes or slick rebranding excercises, is the only way out of the quagmire of negative electoral equity that they find themselves in. And for those who have read it, here's another argument to add to the arsenal: PR is not just for Westminster.

To make my point, I thought it would be worth applying the PR argument to the 2004 local elections in Sheffield. These are the results as they were under first-past-the-post:

Party Votes Seats
Labour 164115 (38.28%) 44 (52.38%)
Liberal Democrat 147049 (34.30%) 37 (44.05%)
Conservative 75900 (17.70%) 2 (2.38%)
Green 30824 (7.19%) 1 (1.19%)
Others 10833 (2.53%) 0

Besides revealing that, on a mere 38% of the vote, Labour has no mandate to govern Sheffield either, the results also show that 75,900 votes were cast for the Conservatives in 2004 but returned just two councillors. That's 37,950 votes needed to elect a single councillor, as opposed to 3,729 for Labour and 3,974 for the Lib Dems. A moderate swing in Dore and Totley could have thrown the Tories off the council altogether, despite gaining nearly 18% of the vote.

For contrast, compare the seats allocated from a Mixed Member Proportional system with a 5% threshold for list seat allocation:

Party Seats
Labour 33 (39.29%)
Liberal Democrat 30 (35.71%)
Conservative 15 (17.86%)
Green 6 (7.14%)
Others 0

Switching to a fairer system would propel the Tories from being a fringe party in the area to holding a strong third place, and the balance of power on the City Council to boot.

This is a scenario that could well be repeated across the country, at a stroke returning the Tories to a position of relevance in metropolitan areas from which they have apparently vanished. This is what Mr. Cameron stands to gain from PR - his party will once again have a genuine say in how our cities are governed, especially if he follows through with his promise to re-enfranchise local government. There will be no need to suck the life out of local Labour administrations as the Tories did in the 1980's and 90's - those administrations will no longer exist.

As for a proportionally-represented English Parliament to solve that pesky West Lothian question - well, given that more people voted for the Tories than Labour in England in 2005, I don't understand why they're not jumping at the opportunity. Perhaps being a Conservative means not changing things even after they've stopped working - if so, then I think this argument exemplifies why I'm not one.

It's high time for some senior figures in the Conservative Party to wake up and realise that

a) The electoral system is broken, and
b) The Liberal Democrats will not willingly roll over and join the two-party system as did much of the old Liberal Party

and that PR is the only way for them to avoid becoming an anachronism represented only in the rural South of England. Surely someone genuinely high-profile within the Tory party will come to this realisation before long: I keep hoping it will be someone like Ken Clarke, but sadly he's not a convert yet.

A huge opportunity presents itself to reform our governance at all representational levels in the UK: a new constitutional settlement for the 21st century that benefits the Lib Dems, the Tories and the country all at the same time. If Mr. Cameron wants to present his credentials as a reformer, he should make sure that not only is his party representative of this country, but that government is representative of this country. To pinch from Aaron Sorkin, "I think the right place to start is to say, fair is fair. This is who we are. These are our numbers."

If Mr. Cameron knows what he's doing, he will be leading this movement by 2009.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Pushing the envelope

I hear from Harrogate that today's Post Office motion was passed "overwhelmingly" - congratulations to Norman Lamb for responding so positively to the views expressed at the last conference, and to Ming Campbell for supporting the motion so vigorously. I think the policy we have ended up with is a superb vindication of the federal system at its best.

There still seems to be some general unease, however, among our membership regarding a percieved "rightward drift" in our policy-making, and I'd like to speak to some of those sentiments here.

Tony Ferguson of Ballots, Balls and Bikes writes:
"We do not need another centre right party in British politics - and even if we do then the Liberal Democrats should not be it!"
I think we should avoid conflating the economic liberalism espoused by Mrs. Thatcher with the sort of authoritarian, racist, misogynist, class-warfare Toryism that we all detest, both pre- and post-Lady T - or, for that matter, the principle-free zone that is the current Labour administration.

There's nothing wrong in my opinion with using the free market to acheive better results as long as, while doing so, you evaluate those results from a social point of view - which is exactly what the Orange Book philosophy is about, and is incidentally part of our heritage dating back to Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

We need to remember as a party that the market isn't "owned" by anyone, that it has no innate personality or motive, and it doesn't vote Conservative at general elections - it's purely a mechanism for achieving an outcome. Just as we reject the dogma of the free market for the free market's sake, we should also reject that of the state for the state's sake. We are social Liberals, and as such we uphold immutable principles and rights that apply and belong to all of our citizens. Any solutions that embody these principles can and must be considered our territory, whether free-market or otherwise.

What Orange Book Liberalism is about is living in a world where laissez-faire economics are, once again, a fact of life; where the international movement of goods and labour is freer then ever; a world that has woken up from the nightmare of Communism wiser for having done so.

This shift "rightwards" is by no means a surrender to big business - Liberals have always opposed power wherever it is used to excess, and that includes members of the FTSE 100. It's long been known that monopolies, corruption, insider trading, tax evasion and price-gouging strongly mitigate the positive effects of a free-market economy, and we should continue to campaign vigorously to stamp out all of the above practices.

It's also, however, a Liberal imperative to limit the excesses of the state, and that's an area where we have forgotten our duties in recent decades.

There are a whole raft of genuine Liberal policies that we have eschewed until now for fear of being labelled "right-wing" - the Post Office part-privatisation - removing some of the unaccountable power residing within the EU - removing millions of the poorest people from the taxation system - creating carbon trading schemes to allow businesses to trade carbon emissions.

If we ignore these, it may well be at our peril.


While Cameron spins, Ming plays with a straight bat

Journalists who desperately searched for a "Clause IV" moment contained within the cynical press release prepared by David Cameron (hereafter known as Mr. Balloon) on Tuesday should hie themselves to the Liberal Democrat conference this weekend and see how a real paradigm shift is engineered.

Congratulations are due to Ming - not only did he convincingly beat a surprisingly strong challenge from Chris Huhne, but he has won the post-election publicity campaign hands-down. The party's brightest and best - as promised - have been queueing up for interviews on Radio 4, BBC news and Sky News, and all have been united, on-message, and promoting the conference agenda.

And today, the conference will vote on its first policy initiative - a part-privatisation of the Royal Mail that will save thousands of local post offices. What better way to show that the Liberal Democrats are for solution-based politics - what better way to show that we are a relevant and credible alternative in the modern era? Both Labour and the Conservatives have abandoned the post office network - they have systematically stripped away many of the functions that post offices used to perform, while preventing them from effectively diversifying into viable modern businesses.

This policy will set a blueprint for how the market can be used responsibly to make people's lives better: freeing both people and businesses from a stifling regulatory burden; using competition to empower customers, employee share schemes to empower workers, and quality contracts to empower communities: a true Liberal agenda.

On Monday, Ming will announce his first reshuffle, and it looks to be an exciting one with the Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Environment portfolios vacant, and many young and exciting MPs such as David Laws, Nick Clegg, Ed Davey, Sarah Teather and of course Chris Huhne primed for promotion.

Many of these people could be in Government in three years time.

Watch closely.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


A turn-up for the books?

In the time between the tossing of the coin and its landing, breathe the wrong way and you'll change the outcome...

So they say. The last votes have come through the postbox (or in some cases, I'd like to believe, hand-delivered by forgetful yet conscientious London members), and all that remains is to await the result. But what result? Unlike the Tory leadership contest, only Simon Hughes is left looking somewhat desperate proclaiming himself to be in the race, while supporters of the remaining two candidates will have a nervous wait for 3pm tomorrow - Ming declaring himself to be "optimistic although not complacent" and Chris's team relaxing by taking in some Jazz in sunny Cheltenham.

Meanwhile, a lot of late money has been changing hands on the betting exchanges. First Huhne's odds on Betfair lengthened as spooked punters laid off their bets, putting Campbell into the lead, then Campbell surged to 11/25 hot favourate by half past ten. Meanwhile the convenional bookies were split - William Hill have stood their ground and have not offered new odds since making Huhne 8/11 favourite at noon, while Ladbrokes are offering the same price on Ming.

Part of the problem in calling the race is the difficulty in producing polls for a 3-way Alternative Vote race among a small and, more importantly, unpublished membership. The only poll of members that OLO has seen so far is a two-poll aggregate on Guido's - and if this graphic is to be believed then that's very good news for the man himself ;-)

My personal feeling is that Ming will edge it, with his lead for second preferences among Hughes supporters the deciding factor. But one way or another, it's going to be an exciting day tomorrow.

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